How to smoke a trout

We didn’t buy our house with food in mind. It was only after we moved into it that we started thinking in terms of dinner. And so we put in a garden, we got chickens, and we built a hoophouse. There was one food, though, that came with the place. We live on a 110-acre pond, and it’s stocked with trout a couple of times a year. These last few years, though, we’ve been so absorbed by other endeavors that we haven’t done much trout fishing.

This, despite the fact that here’s a special place in my heart for trout fishing, since that is the first successful fishing I ever did. At least, that’s my story. Every time I tell it, Kevin just rolls his eyes.

It was ten years ago that we took a trip to Paradise. We spent a rainy Memorial Day weekend in Paradise, Pennsylvania, where Kevin’s brother Rob had a cabin. There’s not much to do in Paradise – which, despite what you may have heard, is smack-dab in the middle of the Poconos – and we spent a disproportionate amount of time trying to find decent places to eat.

It actually wasn’t that disproportionate, given that finding a decent place to eat in the Poconos in 2003 wasn’t so easy. We finally lit on a Thai place in Stroudsburg, and it was good enough that we still talk about it (it’s called Saen Thai Cuisine, and I believe it’s still there). That was the only place, though, and we cooked most of the rest of our meals at the cabin, where the best cooking option was the grill.

When you’re hungry, and you have a grill, and there’s a trout hatchery with a catch-your-own pond just down the street, it’s not hard to connect the dots.

Fishing for trout at a hatchery is a lot like shooting them in a barrel. But it’s still fishing. You cast into the pond, and you’re not any less excited by the tug on the pole for knowing that the pond is teeming with hungry fish, put there just so you have something to do. Well, I wasn’t any less excited, at any rate. Kevin was significantly less excited, and made merciless fun of me for even labeling our activity “fishing.” “This isn’t fishing,” he said. “This is shopping.”

I’m afraid that what we do in our backyard isn’t too far removed. The pond has trout only because the good people from the hatchery put them there. Right after stocking, we have a robust population of hungry fish that have not had the opportunity to develop street smarts. They are not hard to catch.

And so, the other night, with dinnertime fast approaching and a cupboard comparatively bare, Kevin donned waders and went out with a light rod equipped with a little gold spoon-like lure. Twenty minutes later, he had dinner in the form of two small brown trout.

And then, there was a small miracle. Like anyone who cooks every day, I’m constantly trying to put something good together from the odds and ends of leftovers, the vegetables about to wilt, and whatever’s in the pantry. Most of the time, it’s fine. Every now and then, it’s quite good. And, once in a blue moon, it’s delicious.

As Kevin smoked the trout, I put together a salad of rice and chickpeas with herbs and capers, dressed with a mustard vinaigrette. They went beautifully together. “This is spectacular,” Kevin said after the first bite. “Too bad it’s a one-off.” This, because almost everything we eat is a one-off, the product of what we happen to have, today.

But maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t have to be a one-off. And so, I am taking the radical step of writing down the recipe. This has the added bonus of allowing you, if you are so inclined, to duplicate it. Imagine that. What a system!

How to Smoke a Trout in a Kettle Grill

Put a handful of hardwood chips in a bowl of water to soak.

Gut and clean your trout, and remove the gills. Leave heads and tails on. That’s all the prep we do – no brining or even salting, since the fish’s flavor is mild enough to be easily overpowered.

In a kettle grill, start a fire with about a half-chimney of charcoal. Trout smoke quickly, so you don’t need a huge pile. When the coals are completely covered with ash, pile them on one side of the grill and put the soaked wood chips on top of the pile.

Put the trout on the side of the grill away from the coals, so you’re cooking on indirect heat. Cover the grill, and keep the airflow low so it doesn’t get too hot.

After 15 minutes, turn the fish – you’ll get a sense of how quickly it’s cooking. A 1.5-pound trout will smoke in about thirty minutes at 200 degrees, but times vary depending not on fish size and grill heat.

Smoked Trout with Rice and Chickpea Salad
(Serves 2, with leftover salad)

For the salad:

1 T. olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
½ large bulb fennel, chopped
1 ½ c. chickpeas (one can, rinsed, works fine)
3 c. cooked rice
¼ c. capers, chopped
zest of one lemon
1 c. chopped mint
1 c. chopped parsley or basil (I used parsley, but basil would be great)
¼ c. toasted pine nuts
salt and pepper

For the vinaigrette:

2 T. white wine vinegar
3 T. olive oil
1 T. Dijon mustard
salt and pepper

2 smoked trout

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and fennel and cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re wilted and beginning to brown. Add the chickpeas and rice, and stir just until everything’s warm. Turn the heat off, and add the remaining ingredients.

For the dressing, combine ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well. Dress the salad just before serving. Serve warm, or at room temperature, with the trout.


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    • Katie — Creeped out by those dead eyes staring at you, are you? I suspect you’re not alone! The reason to leave the head and tail on is just to keep moisture in. We don’t use a pan of water (as many smoking instructions call for) because the fish just doesn’t dry out with a relatively quick cooking time. But keeping it intact helps guard against dryness. If you’re *really* creeded out, take off the head, by all means. It won’t ruin it.

  1. Yummmmmm! Love trout, poor fishermen! Used to work at a trout processing plant so could have fresh fish anytime we wanted; now at the mercy pretty much of the one son who fishes regularly. Sure miss it!

  2. Rick — Never fear, the old school is still with us. There will be plenty about fishing and oystering and growing, now that those seasons are underway. It won’t be all politics, all the time — I promise.

    Myrna — That’s a reminder for me not to take trout in my backyard for granted!

  3. “I know, I know. It looks like dead fish. But it tasted really good.”

    Well, to be fair, isn’t “fish dinner” usually dead fish by definition?

    I just emailed your smoking recipe to my husband, the fanatic smoker and recently tolerant to eating fish with their heads still attached. we’ve not actually cooked whole feesh before, and this might be just the entry-level recipe we need to finally buy some of those whole trout at Wegman’s!

    • Kingsley — I have it from reputable authorities that gills can impart a bitter or musty taste. I have not done the double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment myself, so I can’t verify this independently. There are times when I go with the conventional wisdom, without my customary rigor. Anyone out there know more about this?

  4. Frequently, the gills are home to parasites; if you look closely at them sometimes you can see little white specks attached here and there. Yep, thats them!!!!

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